The Challenge of “Historical Literacy”
Peter N. Stearns, April 1991
Growing concern with historical literacy and demonstrations of the power of literacy-like standards in actual school curricula form one of the striking currents in history education in recent years. The historical literacy phenomenon is of course part of a general extension of "literacy" impulses in the major disciplines, a means of calling attention to deficiencies in basic preparation and providing a definable set of benchmarks by which education can be evaluated. The superficial rigor of the literacy movement constitutes its central challenge, as it affects not only pre-collegiate education but also the teaching possible in the early college years plus the training provided to new teachers. In history, literacy advocates have not only produced lists of crucial facts that any educated person must know, they have also moved to reduce flexibility in history curricula in the name of essential coverage. They have won apparent adhesion even from a wider range of historian-teachers, as witness the decision to label yet another exercise in historical literacy with what is in fact a diverse collection of essays surrounding the "Guidelines" prepared by the Bradley Commission on History in Schools. Literate historians surround us at every turn.
Yet the historical literacy approach rests on a number of highly questionable premises. It follows from a nostalgia for a century past, when improving mechanical reading ability seemed the key to personal and social progress, a notion that does not fully conform to historical reality. It rests, certainly, on an equation of reading skills with the features of a complex discipline like history that is dubious in the extreme. Literacy advocates often imply, further, that historical knowledge has deteriorated over recent decades, which allows them to trumpet remedial action without bothering to prove the facts of their proposition. The amazing ignorance demonstrated by sizable minorities of World War II draftees—about a quarter, for example, unable to name the existing President, then in his third term—suggests that some genuine problems may not be as novel as the panic-pushers would have us think. Even if some kinds of social knowledge have deteriorated, causation is surely complex.
Some historical literacy gurus suggest that new kinds of historical inquiry, diverting from the great men and great achievements whose history will convert callow youth into American citizens, constitute the villains of the piece. Yet most school history has apparently changed very little, despite admitted attempts at reform, which might suggest that new approaches, rather than more of the same, fit the pedagogical bill. On the whole, provocative assertion surpasses careful demonstration in the current halls of literacy. New views of history mislead; students have fallen from standards, with resultant if not fully specified pathologies. The remedy is reemphasis on recounting the basic achievements of past heroes, warts carefully removed.
Most of the practicing historians who have spoken out on the subject have rejected the literacy approach, or at least have seriously modified it in practice. Even the reports that fed the Bradley Commission, while something of a hodge-podge, largely urged non-literacy values, even if the literacy flag was hoisted on the report's binding. While attacks on historical literacy should not divert from more constructive teaching goals—the task of providing alternatives is far more exciting—they constitute an essential first step.
Dissent rivets on two key points, the first factual, the second analytical.
Extreme literacy advocates want a taught history that elevates the achievements of Western society, and of selected statesmen and intellectuals within Western society, as a means of socializing students to an agreed-upon version of what the past really means and how it determines what is true and beautiful. What is involved here is essentially a semi-democratized version of the Renaissance idea of history teaching by example, wherein educated men had a common fund of information about past deeds of greatness and past artistic standards that would provide identifiable levels of elite cultivation and that would guide their own actions. In the literacy vision, students more generally are to be exposed to an inspirational past, which will provide necessary common knowledge in an otherwise-diverse society and which will promote values that should underlie responsible political behavior. The problem is that this approach ignores, and downplays, most human experience, leaving even Western history unanalyzed in a comparative context. Implicitly, I fear, students are to be taught the inferiority of other traditions—a lesson that many American students, whatever their own deficiencies, may already learn too well. Within the Western tradition itself, the approach leaves out the social history dimension, which has added to our understanding of the past through attention to groups out of power and activities not immediately related to the generation of great deeds or great ideas. As a discipline, history today reaches out unprecedentedly to a variety of civilization stories and to a sense of the richness of the groups and experiences that make up even our national story, yet historical literacy would largely ignore this new range of material. Literacy advocates, riveting on hortatory themes such as the rise of democracy, clearly fear dilution from examination of other cultures or Western experiences that do not illustrate democracy's triumphant surge—or they fear the results of such inquiry directly.
The literacy movement also converts history from analytical instrument to memorization enforcer. The best historical research has always sought more than a good story. It has aimed at using facts not to provide tests for levels of sophistication or of patriotism, but as data for analytical efforts to understand social change. It works, in other words, to provide better understanding of how societies function. This analytical purpose has been enhanced, over the past generation, by the expansion of history's range and by cross-fertilization with other disciplines in the social sciences and, most recently, with the newer kinds of cultural studies as well.
These gains, in turn, raise a central question, which the historical literacy movement answers without addressing: is history primarily a set of facts, whose mastery presumably enhances the credentials of the memorizer, or is it an active interpretive tool, providing habits of thought, based to be sure on expanding data, that assist in grasping how institutions function, or how officially-approved ideas relate to popular beliefs and actions, or how and why groups may decide on significant shifts in demographic behaviors? The question can be converted readily to pedagogy. Should students concentrate, in dealing for example with the Industrial Revolution, on lists of inventions, or should they explore the issues involved in technological causation, in this and other important cases? (Most American students absorb from their culture a rooted belief in technological determinism, but almost never know the implications of their belief, or that they have the belief in the first place.) Should they note all the legislation of the New Deal as part of a litany of presidential administrations, or should they understand how one major law, such as Social Security, altered the relationship between state and society.
Most historian-researchers do not see themselves mainly as memorialists, repeating or modestly adding to the store of timeless truths. They value their discipline's engagement in an effort to use data to answer significant questions about how society works. It is no accident, in this regard, that recent concerns have prompted new attention to historical contributions to an understanding of the function of gender in society, or that political sociologists have joined interested historians in renewing questions about the impact of changing government functions. Historical analysts will, of course, disagree about what levels of their craft can be taught to nonspecialist students, and at what ages. They will grant the need to develop a mastery of certain factual data before much analytical progress can be made, and they will urge that their approach to social research requires attention to particular contexts of time and place. But they will agree on the importance of addressing questions, not memorizing hallowed facts for their own sake. And to this extent, they will clash head-on with the historical literacy movement.
Partisans of literacy measurements can, to be sure, address the first of the two great objections to their approach by expanding the facts-to-be-learned to encompass non-Western and social data. It is not entirely unproductive to think of amending some of the recent formulations about what must be known to include highlights from Asian, African, and Latin American history as well as from Western, and to note major developments in family structure or protest behavior along with great philosophers and classic treaties. This already forces important reconsideration of teaching coverage, requiring important reductions of the conventional canon—omitting, for example, one of the Jacksonian bank episodes in favor of understanding the process of commercialization of the American agricultural economy in the early nineteenth century, or moving more quickly through Greek philosophy in favor of some understanding of the Confucian legacy as well. These are adjustments that some of the more ambitious recent curricula are undertaking, and they constitute important improvements over historical literacy in its most belligerent formulations. Even these adjustments, however, risk confirming the basic approach, altering the list of questions that can be answered through multiple choice rather than challenging the idea of such a list. The question of what kind of history, social inquiry or factual survey, remains untouched.
The defects of the historical literacy approach, in distorting and reducing the value of the discipline, have not prevented substantial alterations of history teaching in the literacy direction. A teaching discipline already defined primarily in terms of factual coverage—Johnny should know what I think I had to learn about the Constitution—is becoming increasingly rigid. Teachers report decreasing leeway to depart from elaborate state requirements concerning coverage. Tests—out of apparent necessity, machine gradable—drive home the importance of making sure that students memorize as much as they can. Whether the result is improved factual mastery cannot yet be determined, but one thing is clear: many students have less reason than ever before, at least as they enter college, to see history as a vehicle for exploring analytical questions.
Yet, tragically, the literacy movement has not been widely challenged before a wider public or educator audience. Historians ridicule the lists of a thousand essential facts to each other, but they have not mounted a vigorous counterthrust. In persuading an education-school group of the limitations of the literacy approach—an encouragingly easy task—one can be brought up short: if this is so, why has a historian not written a rebuttal? Why, as far as the interested public is concerned, has Allen Bloom been allowed to cultivate and define the historical garden? Why, beyond its amorphous ultimate message, has the Bradley Commission report generated such scant reaction?
The challenge is valid, and it should provoke some real soul-searching. The historical literacy movement has addressed some genuine problems, which may mute response. All serious historians must be concerned about the dilution of social studies classes with practical programs such as how to write checks (commercial economics); social studies, it seems, can become a catch-all to the detriment of rigorous study of any sort. The continued prevalence of coaches who teach (but who really teach to coach) among the ranks of social studies teachers is another issue of importance to historical literates and to those of analytical bent alike, as is the need in many cases to consider serious expansion of totalocial studies requirements in the schools. Further, even historians ultimately interested in their discipline as a means of evaluating social change can be caught short by the widely-publicized findings about student ignorance. Most of us, after all, were trained to value some knowledge of the Renaissance or the Founding Fathers, and it is disconcerting to find students bereft of these staples while also no further along in the more analytical uses of the discipline. It is tempting, in this situation, to go along with the coverage crowd.
It takes some courage, additionally, to oppose an approach so cunningly labeled as literacy. Some historians may fear that, deprived of its credentialling function, history's popularity might suffer, given the obvious fact that its analytical claims differ in precision and in forecasting potential from those of science.
Some historians, further, may be daunted by the political charge accompanying the historical literacy movement. There is no question that many literacy partisans hope to use history to enforce conservative national loyalties, against the immigrant, feminist, and other tides that threaten. Correspondingly, suggestions of a different approach to history teaching have undeniable political implications, even if its proponents argue in terms of higher truths. Analytical history involves revisionism, for the warts on culture heroes get put back on. On another front, many researchers may be content with a de facto division of their discipline, in which school history is simply different from real history, with college history courses presumably serving as a time of implicit transition for those students whose education goes that far. A division of this sort follows from the primary responsibility of education departments, rather than history departments, in training teachers. It also provides a convenient excuse for many imaginative historians to get on with their principal research tasks. The current excitement of historical research, quite apart from more prosaic goads to publish lest perish, has diverted many practitioners from paying much attention to the pedagogical implications of their work. The discipline has, quite simply, put far more creativity into research than into teaching during recent decades, and the lack of systematic opposition to the historical literacy movement both reflects and potentially furthers this disparity.
This situation may of course continue, given the ongoing interests of the research community and the undeniable strength of the literacy surge, feeding wider interests in developing simple forms of accountability for teaching in various fields and in making sure that students replicate the historical coverage many adults are familiar with. Yet the triumph of the literacy approach is not only undesirable, but also avoidable. Granting the validity of some historical literacy concerns, and the appeal of making young people toe the memorization mark, alternatives can be envisaged.
The first step, of course, is to prevent historical literacy from preempting the field. There are different ways to construe what history teaching should convey, and they must be more widely articulated. The second step is to project viable options that would provide genuine grounding in a history used as part of social analysis. Several suggestions are already possible.
1) Historians should project several variants of contemporary history courses that simultaneously provide some coverage of later twentieth-century developments (recent-history literacy, if you will) and a real linkage with larger historical trends and analogies from past periods. If history is to contribute to an understanding of how society works, this is the kind of course that must be offered, in principle at several different levels. It is well known that survey courses typically run out of gas before the recent period, and this dilemma needs to be countered explicitly. In the process, the contributions of history to social understanding can be directly developed.
2) Historians should project analytical segments that can be used as options within a survey context, at least by middle- and high-school levels. Even if coverage goals cannot be entirely recast, they can profitably be modified, freeing regular class periods for what are essentially history laboratories. In these labs, in turn, students would be asked to gain experience in dealing coherently with primary evidence (this is one ingredient already present in some teaching frameworks), but then to move on to engagement with key types of interpretive issues, such as analyzing official value structures and their interaction with subcultures, or determining the relationship between causes and results of key pieces of legislation or policy. In these labs, conceptual training would join with skills in managing data, not only through textual criticism but also via quantitative techniques. Just as science teaching uses problem sets to illustrate scientific method and selected theories and laws, as relief from rote learning, so the installation of the history laboratory modifies straight survey coverage in favor of utilization of case studies that provide insight into central analytical problems. Thus problems involving comparative frameworks will be introduced to interpretations of cultural variables without the necessity of laboratory work on each civilization segment of a world history course. Case studies that involve explaining the sources and impacts of change would not, therefore, require a survey of every major historical time period. The laboratory highlights issues, not undifferentiated memorization.
The proposal of regular history labs is not intended to assert scientific status for history, for the discipline's claims are different. It follows, however, from a need shared by history and the sciences to leaven textbook treatment with serious introduction to the discovery aspects of the disciplines—in this case, discovery qualities that emerge in learning to manage data and to grasp analytical issues in the case-study format.
3) College-level historians should take the lead in rethinking (again!) the purposes of the entry-level history course. Here is another point at which historical literacy goals are particularly tempting—at last, one can rescue former high school students from ignorance—but also particularly unfortunate. To replicate coverage goals, often complete with gigantic textbooks and multiple-choice examinations, risks deadening an interest in history at the college level plus inhibiting any real ability to use history in approaching social topics.
The entry-level course may, to be sure, require certain coverage elements, for example in insisting on some international history exposure, but its principal goals should surely be analytical. A survey semester to provide essential survey context, itself leavened by analytical training, could thus be followed by a deliberately topical semester in which the case study approach takes pride of place. Or the whole introduction could be organized around historical problems, capped perhaps by a contemporary history segment. The bulk of the introductory survey should build on defined types of historical situations whose analysis especially pays off in terms of abilities to grasp social processes more generally: types of change, organized perhaps between cases in which the state initiates and cases in which the state is acted upon; issues of causation in comparative context; implications of "silent" processes such as demographic patterns; again the question of competing value systems within single societies—the list of potential foci for exemplary analytical experience is considerable. Different groups of historians will generate different preferences, and ideally can move from this to the provision of models and some casebook material that will enable other instructors to follow suit.
Precisely because the pressures on the schools to emphasize coverage learning are mounting, it is vital for college instruction deliberately to introduce students to the additional functions of history, at the expense of some conventional survey time, and at the expense, ertainly, of the comfort of some familiar teaching routines. What analytical exercises are possible, beyond some exposure to primary documents, and how they combine with what may still seem essential coverage ought to organize creative debate. In the process, imaginative college curricula can provide at least indirect guidance to those history teachers in the schools who struggle to offer something more than textbook mastey.
The essential ingredients involve a willingness to open vigorous debate about history teaching and the provision of some real effort in developing and fleshing out analytical options. Proponents of historical literacy, while calling legitimate attention to a series of issues in the presentation of the discipline, have miscast the kind of thinking that should be engaging history teaching. The "essential elements" of history—to use phrasing from the state of Texas—do not really consist of factual gems, but rather exposure to the kinds of historical situations that help students sort out some of the complexities of the human social experience. History requires data; it is no mere exercise in context-free critical thinking. Yet coverage goals are so deeply ingrained in the way most educators think of history teaching, and at the same time by themselves risk such sterility, that the strongest possible case for experimenting with realistic means of meeting the essential analytical purposes of history is not misplaced.
Ultimately, the emphasis on historical literacy risks demeaning historical study. Converting history to the memorized mastery of monuments from the past diverts from history as a means of discovery, as a basis for expanding insights and understandings of the past and what the past can tell us. Precisely because history permits discovery, it is essential to promote innovation in history teaching that matches its achievements in other domains. Here, once the literacy blinders are removed, the need for renewed commitment not just to good teaching but to imaginative educational planning becomes essential. Many universities have pulled back from much creative attention to history teaching save as accomplished by individual instructors; they have thus resanctified the survey course because of its convenience in meeting the laudable goal of an identifiable history requirement. They must now be called upon for the more ambitious task of stimulating new debate and rewarding well-reasoned innovation. The challenge of matching history's research achievements with appropriate teaching strategies has not yet been met in the contemporary educational context.
Peter N. Stearns is head of the department of history, Carnegie Mellon University, and editor of the Journal of Social History. He has worked on a variety of history education projects, some in conjunction with College Board programs, others involving training institutes or curriculum development for secondary school teachers.